“The Good Samaritan”, 1562-3, National Gallery London. The artist, Jacopo da Ponte (1535- 1592), who was known as Jacopo Bassano, was the son of an artist and had four sons, all of whom became artists. They worked alongside their father in his studio near the bridge over the river Brenta in the provincial town of Bassano del Grappa, which is in the Veneto and not far from Venice. Their home and workshop was near the bridge and hence the family name “da Ponte”. They often worked together on the same paintings, which makes attribution difficult. The question, “Which Bassano?” is never far away. Very often, Jacopo’s landscapes include a view of the town with nearby Monte del Grappa, even if the rest of the landscape bears no relation to the town’s actual surroundings. In this picture the Good Samaritan encounters the man who fell among robbers on a road which descends steeply to what is actually Bassano del Grappa, which does duty for Jericho. Further along the road, we can see both a Temple priest and Levite moving briskly away. One striking thing about this picture is its vertical thrust. Jacopo Bassano was one of the first artists of his day to paint this subject, but in his other versions the victim lies flat on the ground and the picture’s format is accordingly horizontal or ‘landscape’. But this ‘portrait’ composition emphasises how the victim is being raised up. Having bandaged his wounds, the Samaritan struggles to lift the wounded man up, so that he can put him on the donkey, which waits patiently in the shadows on the right. You can see strain on the Samaritan’s face, with his furrowed brow and flushed cheeks, and in particular, it is evident in his right leg which is taking the man’s weight. Several details are added to emphasise the differences between the Samaritan and the man. The bright garments of the Samaritan contrast with the nakedness of the victim. The Samaritan has a dagger on his belt which reminds us that the victim is now incapable of defending himself. The Samaritan is older. His bald head and swollen ankles suggest that he is a bit past his prime. The victim, although half-dead, has a fine head of hair, and sturdy muscular legs and so is obviously in his prime. The differing colour of their skin is brought to our attention too as the paleness the man’s skin reveals just how close he has come to death. But Bassano wants us to see similarities too. He places both their heads side by side. Both are looking down and have the same long nose. They could be father and son. The Samaritan has by this stage dressed the man’s wounds, but we can see his blood seep through the bandages. We can sense the Samaritan’s blood beneath his skin, flushing his face and his limbs. Below them, two dogs, which are standard in the works of Jacopo Bassano, lap up the spilt blood. It is not hard to make connections with other parables from the Gospel of Luke, not least the prodigal son and the the rich man and Lazarus. In all of this, Bassano leaves us to ponder the asymmetry of care and its position in our lives. The victim will live and, perhaps, he will live long enough to see the Samaritan grow old. In the Aeneid, Aeneas rescues his father from the flames of Troy. Artists often depicted the old man being carried by his son. The most famous is perhaps the sculpture by Bernini from around 1618. But the theme was ancient and well-known. This seems to be that same theme but in reverse. When this painting is compared to certain portraits, which are now attributed to Jacopo’s son Leandro, it is hard not to see the hand of the son in the very skilled rendering of bare flesh seen here, so that perhaps this hugely insightful work flows from the familial and professional dynamics between a father and his sons, all working together in their studio near the bridge over the river Brenta in the provincial town of Bassano del Grappa.
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